When 'God Machines' go back to their maker
All that glitters doesn't stay sold
Comment The genius of Apple's strategy for its iPhone is to make a defensive move look like an offensive one.
It's a prudent safety measure - like adding a safety bolt to the back door. Only, thanks to an American press corps that longs for escapism, it looks like a Blitzkreig.
Imagine if Apple hadn't created this newest addition to its iPod family. Financial analysts would be beating the company up, just as they have for the past couple of years, for failing to meet the challenge of music on mobile phones. Only louder.
Most mobiles have the potential to play music adequately these days - and some, particularly Sony Ericsson's handsets, do it very well. Analysts have been warning Apple for years that the iPod risked going the way of the starting handle after the invention of automatic ignition.
Instead, Apple has the handset manufacturers running around like headless chickens - and the network operators nervous. As a happy consequence, Apple itself has had free publicity worth millions for what is really a premium, high-margin addition to its iPod product line (iSuppli pegs the iPhone margin at over 50 per cent, which suggests Apple netted $350m of revenue in a weekend's business. Ker-ching!).
That shows the power of marketing - when you have a press pack only too willing to be manipulated. This is no accident, for the hype is central to Apple's tactics - much as it was when it launched the iTunes Music Store in 2003.
The idea is to create the illusion of unquenchable demand, so Apple can drive better deals with its suppliers (in the case of the iTunes store, the record labels) or network partner (in the case of the iPhone, the carriers).
"And this...is the future of mobile phones."
In each case, Apple casts the spell that this is a partnership the supplier, or partner, can't possibly live without. In fact, as the record labels have discovered, and the network partners will soon find out, these are deals they very much can live without.
All that glitters doesn't stay sold
The name "God Machine" gives you an idea of the scale of how much is missing from some people's lives - a yawning void they want to be filled by a piece of consumer electronics. But now that these machines are beginning to shuffle back to their maker (returning the product within 14 days of purchase may cost you $111.87- but saves you over $2,000 in operator fees) - it's time to ask some serious questions.
iPhone is perhaps not the emphatic "must have" gadget Apple's cheerleaders in the US press may have wished for.
The amazing multi-touch interface dazzles, in the way that a bright shiny object might dazzle a child. But as our own Cade Metz pointed out, it actually makes some tasks more tedious.
Over at PalmInfocenter, Tim Carroll compares the steps against a Treo, here, before advising Apple to "employ a tap counter".
In truth, the only four killer applications for the mobile phone are (in order); voice, voice, voice, and SMS. And if you make any of these more difficult for people to use than they should be, the manufacturer should have a very good Plan B. And here, Apple runs into the same wall as Nokia, and every other phone manufacturer.
Mobile data services simply aren't very compelling - and are almost always beaten by "real life". Need directions? No mobile service can compete with a good dedicated GPS - they don't know where you are precisely enough - and you'll typically find it's quicker and more rewarding to ask. The same applies to asking for recommendations for local bars or restaurants. Again, local knowledge beats "virtual" information.
That's not to say mobile data services haven't come a long way. Google Maps and Opera's Mini Browser are two excellent services - Omnifone's forthcoming MusicStation a third - which run on almost any mobile today. They have their place in certain situations. Let's see what they are.
You may be caught alone in a remote location and are anxious to check your stock portfolio, the footie scores, or do a map lookup where you are. They come in useful there. Or, you may suffer from a crippling social condition where it's simply too terrifying to ask someone for directions. Or you may have no friends and simply like playing with toys. Mobile data services all fill a need in these situations.
But they're very peripheral. In short, making some slightly irrelevant, and generally useless data service easier to use is a strange justification for hype.
Now let's compare this to the useful role performed by Apple's original Mac. The Mac UI appeared at a time of character mode interfaces where even getting the simplest job done required considerable investment and study. Computers at the time had several problems with accessibility, interoperability, and general ease-of-use - not to mention getting any kind of print-quality graphics work done - and the Mac provided an elegant interface to them all. By contrast the iPhone, along with so many smartphones, is classic technology "push" - an answer to a problem that doesn't really exist.
(Readers with long memories will recall how even the original Macintosh flopped when it was sold on the basis of its UI: it was Postscript, and the graphics niche, that created an enduring business for the Mac. What's the DTP for the iPhone?).
As the Reality Distortion Field begins to disperse, network operators who are currently locked in negotiations with Apple may take great comfort from this.
The iPhone may yet, as I hoped back in January, give the established manufacturers a long overdue reality check. Both Nokia and Sony Ericsson have made their smartphones overly crufty and complicated as the years go by - while Windows Mobile remains a collection of cracks that defies any plaster. Reg readers long for simplicity.
The iPhone, however, doesn't look like the future of phones. If Apple permits it, the iPhone should make great inroads into the "second phone" market occupied by Windows Mobile and RIM's Blackberry today. But the tablet market is pretty small at the end of the day. And there really isn't much Apple, or anyone else, can do about mobile data services vs real life. Perhaps no one ever will.
Less than a month after the launch we can look back to the hyperbolic ventilations of Apple's Poodle Press - the Pogues, Levys and Mossbergs - and ask ourselves, "what on earth were they thinking??" ®